Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Rush Pirates

I spent the weekend just passed looking after Aneirin and Lui by myself. By Sunday afternoon, after a series of excursions and games, I felt that a restful movie was in order.

The kids had been dressing up as pirates, so I promised to find them a pirate movie on Youtube. I was horrified, though, when the telly wouldn't respond to the commands of my remote control (I later discovered it was turned off at the wall).

Aneirin was unphased. 'I can make my own movies' he told me. 'I've been studying how.' He dragged a huge bedcloth from a closet and hung it from a high point in the lounge room, so that it resembled a movie screen, arranged the couches in the room so that they faced his screen, and filled the couches with an audience of teddy bears and dinosaurs. Then he made Lui and me sit down too, and announced the premiere of a film called The Rush Pirates.

Aneirin stepped behind the screen, so that we could see only a vague semblance of his shadow, and began to act out a drama between two characters, Good Pirate and Bad Pirate, playing first one character then the other. The two pirates argued about treasure, brandished swords and pistols at one another, and finally exchanged shots. The movie ended when Aneirin fell through the screen and sprawled over the floor. Lui and I applauded The Rush Pirates loudly, and the dinosaurs and bears offered positive reviews.

Aneirin announced that the movie would screen again in a couple of minutes, rushed to the kitchen, and returned with a bottle of tomato sauce. When he burst through the screen for a second time and fell on the floor, his shirt was covered in red liquid. 'Neirin's hurt Daddy', Lui said in alarm. 'Lui you silly' Aneirin muttered, coming to life. 'I'm just pretending. It's a movie.'

I was confused at first by Aneirin's insistence on acting out his movie on the far side of a screen, but then I remembered a few precedents for such a manoeuvre. Didn't the Balinese stage puppet dramas from behind screens? Didn't Pink Floyd sometimes perform behind a wall?

After the third performance of The Rush Pirates Aneirin took a break, and Lui went and sat behind the screen. Aneirin was unimpressed by his little brother's unmoving shadow. 'Lui's making a really boring movie Dad' he said. 'Nothing's happening.' 'It's just a slow movie, that's all' I replied. 'Not all movies are as exciting as The Rush Pirates. There was a guy called Andy Warhol, and he filmed his friend sleeping for hours and hours, and then showed his film to audiences. He called it Sleep.'

'What happened at the end of Andy Warthog's movie?' Aneirin asked. 'I don't know' I said. 'I've never actually watched it. I think that the man who has been sleeping wakes up, and that's the end'. 'That's so boring' Aneirin said. 'If I was in that movie I'd run at the man with a pirate sword and wake him up a whack.'

'I think I would prefer The Rush Pirates to Sleep' I said. 'Are you going to show your movie to Mum, when she comes home, and to Marie'. 'Oh no' Aneirin said. 'My movie's only for boys. It's way too violent for Mum and Marie.'

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, September 08, 2017

Watching Ballard

My father-in-law is an idealist and a humanitarian, and therefore finds the world of 2017 a painful and disappointing place. Alan watches the news, sees carnage in the Middle East, a nuclear standoff in Asia, and a buffoon in the White House, and wonders why humanity, with all its resources and technological prowess, is unable to live in anything resembling peace and harmony. Alan and I often talk about the manifest failures of modern civilisation, and he often asks me what has gone wrong, and I often make some vague and jargon-filled and contradictory reply.
My father-in-law is probably tired of listening to my attempts to explain the world, so I have sent him a link to this superb documentary, which the BBC made about JG Ballard in 2003. Ballard is probably most famous as the author of a series of science fiction stories about the end of the world, and as the man whose autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun inspired a lavish Steven Spielberg film.
As the BBC's doco shows, though, Ballard was also a prophet and a philosopher, who understood the world of late modernity earlier and better than almost anyone else. The BBC's team travels to Shepperton, the unglamorous London suburb where Ballard lived for decades, and interviews him beside a bleak reservoir and in a bar close to Heathrow airport.

The elderly author's commentaries on modernity are interspersed with dramatisations of scenes from some of his most important books: The Drowned World, which imagines melting poles, overflowing oceans, and a tropical Europe where lizards displace humans; Crash, the notorious portrait of a cult whose members get sexual gratification from smashing into each other's cars; Concrete Island, in which a twentieth century Robinson Crusoe finds himself stranded, after his car is wrecked, on a traffic island surrounded by motorways; High Rise, which describes the conversion of the two thousand inhabitants of a forty-storey luxury apartment embrace violence and a hunter gatherer lifestyle; and Super Cannes, which explains how a group of well-paid suits form a gang and begin to attack the vagrants and migrants who live on the streets of their city.
Again and again, Ballard argues that the apparent safety and wealth of modern consumer capitalist society is both ahistorical and unnatural, and can only disguise and create violence. In the most chilling section of the documentary, Ballard points to the 9/11 attacks on America, and notes that the young men who flew planes into buildings came from the shopping malls and suburbs of wealthy countries. Violent zealots, Ballard says, are an inevitable response to the world in which we live. Ballard's vision of the world is pessimistic, but like all great writers he sometimes manages to find a perplexing beauty in the places he condemns, and to make disaster and dysfunction not only vivid but uncomfortably exhilarating.

Ballard does not provide a comprehensive view of the modern world. He has little to tell us about economics, sociology, demographics. Nor does he offer anything like a coherent alternative to the civilisation that both appalls and beguiles him. But as an anthropologist of late capitalist consumer culture he is without rival.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Ta'e mahino

Here's a poem for Tongan Language Week. It is part of a series of verse letters that I wrote to my mate Sio Siasau when he was living and painting in Gotham City last year.

When I turned up to Pah Homestead to give a talk about Sio's art a couple of weeks ago, I attempted to give a Tongan greeting my audience, and was embarrassed to realise how much of the language I'd forgotten. The great Peter Ackroyd said that he cam assimilate masses of information when he's working on a book, but that much of it slips out of his head when he moves on to a another project. Can I claim the same failing?

Sonnet for Sio: 18

Your language is a portable homeland, Sio.
Inside my local Free Wesleyan Church
men must wear beaten bark around their waists,
dresses must waft safely around women's ankles,
and each deacon must carry a white handkerchief
in case the deacon's brow needs drying
halfway through his sermon. No word may begin
or end without a vowel, and choriesters must lift their voices
for the first syllables of 'uma and 'ata
so that no one may mistake a shoulder for a kiss,
or twilight for freedom. We repeat the prayer
to 'Otua, that god who demands
a glottal stop. Last night I dreamed
that I was on my knees, inspecting
the goddess Hikule'o's dress,
lifting its hem as carefully as an umu stone,
and sniffing gratefully
as an air conditioner's breeze blew down on my brow.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tonga's king gambles

Michael Field has been thinking about Tonga's political crisis. Field hasn't been impressed by the embattled government of 'Akilisi Pohiva, but he doesn't care much for the royals and nobles trying to overthrow Pohiva, either. 
I don't know if Field would agree, but it seems to me that King Tupou VI has gambled a lot by dissolving parliament and calling new elections a year ahead of schedule. Prime Minister Pohiva has accused the king of a coup, and has signalled that he and members of his government will stand for re-election.
It is quite possible that, when they go to the polls, Tongans will feel that they are being asked to choose between king and the prime minister, between monarchy and their democracy. 
In the 1990s and early 2000s, there seemed to no way to reconcile the near-absolute monarchy with the aspirations of Tonga's pro-democracy movement. The elderly Tupou IV was determined to prevent any erosion of his powers, and so advocates of democracy began to resort to radical actions, like a general strike and a mass demonstration and, eventually, the riot that destroyed so much of Nuku'alofa in 2006.
Tupou VI's brother and predecessor was an eccentric and unpopular man, but he managed to stabilise Tongan society by ending the contradiction between the monarchy and democracy.
By giving away many of his powers and allowing a commoner to become Prime Minister, Tupou V made Tongans feel that they could have both democracy and their monarchy. Now, though, Tupou VI seems to have recreated the dichotomy of the early 2000s.
Tupou VI has also gambled by linking himself so tightly to Tonga's nobles, who are far less popular than the monarchy. Many Tongans are critical of the way a third of the seats in parliament are reserved for nopeli, and of the role that they are allowed to play in the distribution of land and other resources. Yet Tupou VI has let noble Lord Tu'ivakano become the salesman for his attempt to oust 'Akilisi Pohiva.
Pohiva's government has not been very efficient or consistent, and is far from universally popular. But many erstwhile supporters of Pohiva may turn out to vote for him out of a sense that the nobles and the king are trying to strangle Tonga's democracy. And if Pohiva is re-elected in November then the credibility of Tupou VI will be devastated, and the very future of the Tu'i Kanokupolu dynasty that has ruled Tonga since 1852 will be at stake. Would Tupou VI allow a re-elected Pohiva to take office, with all the humiliation that would entail, or would he annul the election and return to the old days of direct rule? Neither option promises stability for Tonga. 

The enemies of Tongan democracy has been manoeuvring for some time. I wrote about what Maikolo Horowitz's calls the kingdom's 'Weimar period' here
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Gods and politics

I'll be talking about some of Visesio Siasau's heretical artworks and the old religion of Tonga as I wander around Pah Homestead tomorrow. I'm sure that conversation will touch on the political crisis in the kingdom, too. Visesio returned to Tonga early this month, and is living in Haveluloto, an outer suburb of Nuku'alofa and stronghold of support for the just-deposed Prime Minister, 'Akilisi Pohiva. I'll try to ring him tomorrow and get his impressions of the situation.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Of Janus

Over at Pete George's place I've compared the Labour Party to a certain Roman god.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A faulty compass?

As New Zealand's election campaign begins many Kiwis have been using the Political Compass website, which asks its visitors a series of questions, gives them a place on the political spectrum according to their answers, and then suggests which political party best represents their views. 

I visited the Political Compass site, and was struck by the vagueness and ambiguity of some of its questions. There's the question, for instance, which asks whether military action that violates international law is ever justified. It's hard to answer this question with a simple I agree or I disagree, because the nature of the military action isn't specified. 

I protested against the US invasion of Iraq, which was most people considered a violation of international law, but if I think that, for example, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to remove Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge from power at the end of the seventies was justified, despite the fact that it went against international law. So how am I to answer?
There's the question which asks us to agree or disagree with the statement 'It's a sad commentary on our society that water is now bottled and sold as a commodity'. Without context, though, that statement is so vague as to have little or no meaning. 

In Bolivia in the '90s water was briefly privatised, and could only be collected and sold by certain private companies. It was even illegal to collect rainwater. In this context, I'd certainly condemn the commodification of water.
But the situation is different in New Zealand, where water is plentiful and nobody has a monopoly on collecting and providing it. Many people on the left would feel there's nothing wrong with the commodification and export of Kiwi water, as long as this is properly regulated and taxed (a socialist might add that the bottling and marketing of the water ought to be controlled by the community, and any profits from the enterprise ought to be shared). 

And yet if I disagree with Political Compass' statement about the commodification of water being a sad thing then I'm pushed towards the right of the Political Compass. Free trade is yet another area where the Political Compass is confused. The Compass asks us to agree or disagree with free trade, and pushes us to the right if we agree and to the left if we disagree.
Historically, though, the left has not been dogmatically in favour of either free trade or protectionism. Positions have varied from time to time and place to place. In early nineteenth century Britain it was the Conservatives who supported protectionism, in the form of the Corn Laws that drove up domestic food prices, and liberals and radicals who demanded free trade, so that the poor could feed themselves. Part of the criticism of the proposed trans-Pacific free trade deal was that it wouldn't really have been an exercise in free trade, because it would have preserved and created protections and advantages for powerful American companies.
I personally support the right of small Pacific nations like Tonga and Vanuatu to export their goods freely to New Zealand, but support the right of those nations to put up barriers to protect themselves from undesirable Kiwi exports, like the dodgy mutton flaps we dump on them. I think these small and poor nations deserve some advantages when they trade with us. I don't see, then, how I'm supposed to answer Political Compass' question about free trade with a simple 'agree' or 'disagree'.

The Political Compass is a great idea, but the questions it asks are poorly worded.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]